Ep. 26: Martin Rossman, MD – Guiding the Body to Healing Through Guided Imagery

Your body is always, always observing what’s happening in your mind.

You can fool others but you cannot fool yourself or your body. Your mind affects your physical body and your body is always, always observing what’s happening in your mind. And it’s not just visualization that can greatly improve any recovery. At a more basic level, every thought you have can affect your physical body in either a positive, or, unfortunately, negative way. And that’s especially important when healing injuries or disease states.

Dr. Martin Rossman has been practicing medicine for over 50 years, and he’s been using acupuncture in his approach for just as long (in other words, almost since before the American Medical Association began to understand its benefits).

But it’s not just acupuncture – his approach relies heavily on mind-body healing, and guiding it through imagery.

In this interview, you’ll discover:

  • What is neuroplasticity and why does it matter when it comes to your healing.
  • How your thoughts become molecules that then affect your body in a negative or positive way?
  • What imagery is and how to use it in your healing process.
  • How to change your perception so that you can heal in the most amazing way.

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Show notes & links

The show notes are written in chronological order.

  • Dr. Martin Rossman’s website: https://thehealingmind.org/
  • Dr. Martin Rossman’s book: Guided Imagery for Self-Healing [get it here]
  • Dr. Herbert Benson | The Benson Henry Institute – Herbert Benson, MD was a pioneer in Mind-Body Medicine, and one of the first Western physicians to bring spirituality and healing into medicine.
  • Tracking the Mind-Body Connection: An Interview with Dr. Herbert Benson [read it here]
  • Bonica JJ. Therapeutic Acupuncture in the People’s Republic of China: Implications for American Medicine. JAMA. 1974;228(12):1544–1551 [read it here]
  • NYT 1973 article on acupuncture studies in the PCR: China Studies Mystery of Acupuncture [read it here]

00:00 – excerpt from the episode
00:53 – intro (listen to discover a little more about your host. Martin will tell you a new lesser-known fact about Dr. Maya)

Dr. Maya Novak:
You can fool others but you cannot fool yourself or your body. Your mind affects your physical body and your body is always, always observing what’s happening in your mind. And it’s not just visualization that can greatly improve any recovery. At a more basic level, every thought you have can affect your physical body in either a positive, or, unfortunately, negative way. And that’s especially important when healing injuries or disease states. I’ve done dozens and dozens of interviews with health professionals in the last few years. The interview that I did with Dr. Martin Rossman in 2019 stayed with me to this day. There was one part of the interview especially, a story of his patient that he shared, and that you’ll hear in just a few minutes, and that patient got him to start studying more seriously the role of belief, and expectations, and intention. Every once in a while I remember his patient and her story, and for me, it’s just a great reminder of how powerful we are when it comes to healing. I hope you’ll enjoy this conversation at least as much as I did when talking with Dr. Martin. Enjoy.

Dr. Maya Novak:
In this interview, I’m joined by Dr. Martin Rossman, who is an integrity physician and nationally Board certified acupuncturist. He is the author of The Worry Solution: Fighting Cancer from Within and the award-winning self-help book Guided Imagery for Self-Healing. He also has a PBS Television show entitled The Healing Mind. He has written numerous medical textbook chapters on imagery, mind-body medicine, and integrative medicine and has created dozens of guided imagery audios teaching self-care and self-healing. Dr. Rossman, thank you for being here.

Dr. Martin Rossman:
Thank you very much for having me.

Dr. Maya Novak:
Well, I’m very excited about this interview because you are a true expert on self-healing and guided imagery. But before we really go in-depth depth on that, can you share with us your story and why you decided to study medicine?

Dr. Martin Rossman:
Why did I decide to study medicine? Oh, that’s probably too long a story to go into but where I grew up, I grew up with values in my family and my community that were that you wanted to be of help to the world. It was a good thing to do, to help people in need, help people who were suffering. Being a doctor was something that was considered to be a worthwhile goal. I had a cousin older than me who had been the first doctor in our family and everybody was very proud of him and he was a wonderful man. He really enjoyed his life in medicine. He was very well regarded. He was kind of a leader in the medical community and I thought that really looks like a worthwhile thing to do. I did want to be of help in some way, and that seemed like a way that I could be of direct help to people one-on-one. Which is really still – after almost 50 years of practicing medicine – that’s still where I get my kind of daily joy, is working with the wonderful people that I get to see and trying to help them. They often have very difficult medical situations or health situations. They’ve often gone to lots of conventional doctors. Sometimes the conventional doctors are fantastic and do wonderful things for them, but there’s a lot of things, including a lot of – actually all of chronic illness and injury – because they wouldn’t be chronic if they could be cured – where going beyond the conventional medicine and adding to what conventional medicine can offer. Which includes our topic today, which is really working from the inside and using your mind and your brain to interact with your body. To influence your body because your body always tries to do what your mind asks it to do. Imagery just happens to be kind of a brain language that is most effective in influencing the body.

Dr. Maya Novak:
Yes, I so agree. Was there any specific moment in your career when you became interested in mind-body methods and imagery? Was this from the start, or did something happen during your career?

Dr. Martin Rossman:
Yeah, that’s a very good question. I was always interested in how we work as human beings and what the relationship with the mind and body are. I was exposed to meditation when I was in medical school. It was a new thing to me and it was a new thing in Western culture – this is in the late 60s. I found that very useful. When meditation first came to the United States, via The Beatles basically, and transcendental meditation, there was a professor at Harvard, Herbert Benson, who began to study the physiologic effects of meditation. He wrote a very famous paper in Scientific American on the physiologic effects of meditation and finding that when people did go into this meditative state, which is really kind of the anti-imagery state. The meditative state is like you focus on one thing and you don’t follow your thoughts, and for most of us, that’s very helpful because most of the thoughts we have are worries and actually create more stress in the body, so that’s a bit of another topic. But Benson studied the effects of meditation and published this very important article in 1968 showing that it lowered blood pressure and it lowered heart rate and it increased blood flow to the periphery of the body which in our topic, of course, is very important. And that it actually slowed down the metabolism of cells and that the body excreted four or five times more waste products of metabolism during the meditative state than it did, even when you were sleeping, so he coined the term relaxation response. While imagery is not only relaxation, I find that still that it’s the easiest way to induce a relaxation response. The relaxation response is really a facilitated healing state. When you’re in a stress response, when you’re in a fight or flight response, like many of us are much of the time, your body is primed to fight for its survival whether the battles are real or imaginary. We’re primed to solve problems and fight and deal with the outside world. When we take this pause to go into a place where we’re not fighting with anything, your body naturally goes into a state where it can focus its attention on what I call clean-up, heal-up, repair, renewal, restoration. It doesn’t have to mobilize energy to get your heart rate up, get your blood pressure up, and pour the blood into your muscles. It puts it into your digestion. It replenishes the spent chemicals in your brain and your nervous system. It increases the circulation to your extremities. So it’s a repair state and it’s a facilitated repair state and there are certain healing responses that go on in that state that are much more efficient than when you’re doing other things. So Benson was a big influence, and then I had a patient when I was in my first year of practice who came in, she was a wonderful woman. A woman of color, very overweight, one of these kind of earth mother women who had many children and grandchildren and took care of everybody. But she had this pre-cancerous condition in her uterine, in her cervix, and the gynecologist had been trying to talk her into having a procedure to remove that for well over a year and she wouldn’t do it. If you don’t do that, that can turn into cervical cancer which is a very difficult cancer. So she was really putting her life at unnecessary risk. Nobody could get her to do that. We struck up a good relationship and I asked her about it. I said what is it that’s keeping you from doing this? And she said to me, she was a Christian woman and very active in her church, and she said to me, she says; now Dr. Rossman, I don’t need to do that because I know that Jesus will heal me. I pray to Jesus every day and I know that he’ll heal me. I said well – and I was just really trying to get her to have this procedure – and I said to her well, do you ask Jesus every day for healing, and she says yes, and I said well, does he answer you? She says oh yeah, he talks to me. I said well, would it be okay if you asked him if he could heal you in six weeks. Which nobody had ever, of course, asked her - nobody had even asked her why she was not doing this thing. She kind of closed her eyes and she said yeah, he said he’ll heal me in six weeks. I said okay, now I believe he can heal you in six weeks, you believe he can heal you in six weeks, but if it’s not healed in six weeks would you consider having this procedure, and she said yeah, she would. It was kind of a – not exactly a bet, but I said let’s check you out in six weeks. If it’s gone, that’s wonderful. If it’s not gone, we’ll have to do the procedure. She agreed to that. So I felt really good because I thought okay, good I got her to agree to do this procedure. So long story short, she comes back in six weeks and it’s all completely normal and her pre-cancerous condition has gone. There’s no evidence of it all. So that kind of, you know, I thought oh, that’s interesting. That really happened. So that really was a thing that got me to start to study more seriously the role of belief, and expectations, and intention and what a lot of people call the placebo effect – which people misunderstand and, I think, often use wrongly. A lot of people use the placebo effect to mean that well, you didn’t really get better, you just imagined you got better. That’s not what it is. What it really is and my colleague, Dr. Andy Wile, I think he’s right, he once said that we should call it the mind-body healing effect. We compare everything else do it and that’s why do these incredibly expensive and very complex research designs which involve a double-blind placebo-controlled in order to see if a medication or a procedure really has its own effect, or if it’s just the placebo effect. So we kind of think like oh, it’s just the placebo effect, so excuse me that means that your body actually healed because you expected it to. Why don’t we actually think about learning about that? The placebo effect is so strong that we have to do these double-blind experiments and what that means is that you don’t know whether you’re getting – and these are usually done with drugs but they can be done with devices and surgical interventions – but usually it’s a drug. One person gets the real drug, and one person gets a placebo pill, which looks just like the drug. They don’t know whether they’re getting the real drug or the fake drug, the non-active drug sugar pill. The person giving it to them doesn’t know, because research has shown that if the person who gives you the pill, even if they say nothing and they try to not communicate anything if they know which is the real one and which is the fake one, that alters the result. So think about that for a minute. It’s so strong that it accounts for somewhere between 30 and 70% of the effects of any intervention, that’s really a lot. So my orientation, and it sounds like yours as well, and probably other people you’re going to interview as well if you can kind of be fooled into healing faster, why can’t we learn how to use that brain-body connection in order to accelerate the healing, and the answer is we can.

Dr. Maya Novak:
I love that because that’s really what it is about. So what you said, if we can be fooled into healing faster, we can do that before we are being fooled into healing.

Dr. Martin Rossman:

Dr. Maya Novak:
Can you share a bit more for those who don’t know what imagery or visualization is. Can you explain what this actually is?

Dr. Martin Rossman:
Yeah, imagery is a type of thinking. It’s a type of thinking that uses sensory qualities. So there are thoughts that you – where you imagine seeing, or hearing, or smelling, or feeling – sensing in some way. The example we often use when we teach either health professionals or lay people in workshops is I’ll ask them to make some saliva. So sometimes people will feel a little bit of saliva, or they’ll try to make some saliva, and you can usually make a little bit of saliva. But then if we ask people to imagine, like take a minute, close your eyes – your viewers don’t have to. So you take a minute and you close your eyes and you imagine you’re in your kitchen, and you’re at a cutting board, and you a nice big fat juicy lemon and you have a nice big sharp knife. You’re going to be very careful with it. You cut the lemon in half and you can kind of imagine feeling the resistance of the lemon and you cut through it and the knife hits the board. Then you can see the cut surface of the lemon with the pale yellow and maybe a little juice on it. Maybe you cut through a seed. Put that down and cut through it again so you’ve got a quarter of a lemon in your hand. Imagine that you kind of bring it up and you – if you can imagine that. Everyone can imagine the smell, but a lot of people can imagine there’s a kind of a lemony scent and you can see the juice and you can imagine what that tastes like. Then if you imagine that you put that in your mouth and bite down on it and suck the lemon juice in your mouth. Now, most people then will get a big squirt of saliva into their mouth. What’s interesting is that saliva comes from your parotid glands, which secrets a type of secretion that’s for sour. If you did the same thing with a nice sweet orange you would get saliva from here, which are the glands that secret when they taste it. So it’s a quick example of how your body reacts physiologically to imagery. The other most common example that works – it works especially for men, but it’s sexual fantasy. So that explains imagery, at least to men, in like one second. It’s like how can something I’m thinking of here affect me somewhere else in my body. Well, you know, hello. So that and thinking about a verbal description you’re marshaling memories, sights, sounds, smells, the sensation of touch and so on and so forth and it affects like that. It changes your physiology like that. So imagery, it’s kind of a more primitive way of thinking in that we think about how a child develops. They have very wonderful imaginations. Their imaginations are very active before they develop speech and certainly before they develop the ability to do math, which is much more abstract. Animals, we think, think in imagery. How does your cat know how to get from the back yard to the food bowl when they hear the can opener go off? They’ve got an internal representation of their world. They know where things are. They can just run real fast and not run into anything. So imagery is a natural way we think. It’s a language of dreams, of daydreams. We think in it very naturally, it’s just most of us have never been educated in how to use it on purpose. As a matter of fact, a lot of our educational system is like stop daydreaming and concentrate on your math problems – which when you’re learning math you want to do. But I think that we should have all been taught in kindergarten or even before at least how to use your imaginations to relax, to interrupt stress, to kind of get in touch with our bodies.

Dr. Maya Novak:
Yes, absolutely, and what you said about stopping daydreaming. I don’t know if I’m correct, but sometimes I think that people are also afraid to imagine something because very early on they were taught that they shouldn’t be dreaming about something. Now they’re afraid to do that. So…

Dr. Martin Rossman:
In a way, that’s discouraged. It’s like that’s just daydreaming, it doesn’t go anywhere, it’s not productive. And that’s not really true. It’s that we have different – another way to think about imagery, if we can take a minute, is that one of the two or three major coding languages of the brain. So the brain has coding languages of speech and math, and those are very linear, rational, one follows the other kind of coding language and they’re obviously extremely useful. They give us the ability to talk to each other over thousands of miles. They give us the ability to fly in airplanes, to have MRI machines that look into our bodies and go to outer space, and go to the bottom of the ocean, have computers. I mean these are incredible ways of thinking that kind of differentiate humans from all the other animals, and they’re extremely powerful. But, we also have this other coding language and imagery is a coding language that tends to kind of give you the big picture. It’s also much closer to the body and it’s much closer to the emotions, and those are two reasons why it’s very powerful for healing. So one other example, I hope I’m not belaboring it, but if people are new to this it’s useful to think about. When you learn a sport, for instance, you learn a sport by watching people who are doing it. You don’t think about it. Like you learn to ski. You think about it and people coach you and they tell you what to do, but then you watch people ski and how they lean and how they move their body and you fall down a bunch of times until you get it right. But the image of a graceful skier and how they go down the slope is a much faster way to get that into your mind and thinking I’m going to contract my quadriceps and I’m going to relax my gastrocnemius and I’m going to relax my latissimus. You don’t do that. That’s not how you run your body. That’s not how you learn to walk as a baby. You learn to walk because everybody’s walking around you and develop the nervous system connections and eventually that’s how you learn to walk. So we learn by watching and modeling and mimicking, and that’s a form of imagery too. So it’s much closer to the body. Imagery is not a good way to write an insurance contract. You want words and numbers for that. But if you want to learn how to hit a tennis ball, it’s very helpful to imagine how you would hit that ball and what the swing is like and what it feels like. That starts to get you into that. Anything that you do physically, you learn faster and better by imagining it, and the same applies to boosting your healing abilities.

Dr. Maya Novak:
I think that many people might be now questioning how do their thoughts affect their physical body? How does this turn into molecules that then affect my body, either in a positive way or a negative way? Because I think that sometimes we feel, or we think about our physical bodies as something completely separate. So can you explain how thoughts actually become something more tangible?

Dr. Martin Rossman:
Yeah, well you hit on it. First of all, thoughts are things, thoughts are real things. They’re invisible. You only see them yourself, although you can translate them and express them to someone. But let’s take a real simple example, okay. So your brain is sort of the chief operating officer of your body. Your body tries to do what your brain tells it to do. Your brain’s number one function is to keep you alive. That’s what your brain is for. It’s to keep you alive. Its number two function is to reproduce the species. Then everything else is kind of a bonus as far as evolution, I think, is concerned. Our brains can do many millions of wonderful things, but its main job is to keep you alive. So your brain is scanning the environment, external and internal. It’s getting all this input, filtering it through your expectations and your previous experiences and your biases and your belief systems and so on. At a certain level, at a survival level, there’s a little part of your brain right in the middle of it, about the size of maybe the tip of your thumb or the tip of your little finger. It’s called the hypothalamus and it is sort of the head, sort of the CPU of what’s called your autonomic nervous system, which basically has two branches. The two branches are the fight or fight branch, it’s called the sympathetic nervous system, and what’s called the rest and digest branch, those are the parasympathetic nervous system. The hypothalamus, again, it’s only as big as the tip of your finger. It’s getting all this information from your senses and your brain and it sends out a message to the rest of your body. Basically, it only sends out two major messages and those messages are danger, watch out and all-clear, it’s okay, relax. This is painting with a broad brush, but that’s what it does. So if it’s getting – so if you’re out walking and all of a sudden a tiger jumps out of the bush, right, and you see it. Boom, it goes off like that, the fight or flight response. Your heart beats fast. Your blood pressure goes up. Your blood clots quickly. All the blood is pumped into your muscles. So you can either fight that tiger and kill it or run away and survive. If you survive that, you go into that all-clear state. You rest and you replenish the chemicals that you need in your brain and the rest of your body. So that nervous system discharge stimulates your adrenal glands to pump out adrenaline, which is a hormone that instantly goes through your bloodstream and creates all those physical changes in your body. When you go into that rest and digest or that relaxation response, there are other chemicals that go out that do the opposite and tell the body it’s okay. It’s okay to let go, it’s okay to repair and replenish and renew and restore. For us who want to accelerate healing, that’s the state we want to go into. So it’s something that we do more efficiently – kind of almost opposite the way of everything else we do. You don’t kind of try harder. You’re trying, you’re doing something, but it’s kind of paradoxical because you’re putting yourself into that opposite response. So the brain puts out chemicals to send those nerve messages. The nerves stimulate the adrenal glands to put out adrenaline, which changes your whole physiology. And again, once it’s over, then the body metabolizes or eats up that adrenaline and it allows other neurotransmitters and hormones to flow that put you into that rest and repair kind of a state. So a concrete example would be – and I don’t want people to do this right now – but if were for some reason to lead people through a guided imagery and ask people to go back to the worst experience they’ve ever had, or the most frightening experience they’ve ever had. And really ask them to tune into remembering what it looked like, what did you see, and what did you hear, and were there smells in the environment, and what did it feel like in your body and what were your thoughts. You could work up a pretty good reliving of that and get anxious and get your heart beating fast and your blood pressure goes up, sweating. You could do that, but I don’t want your people to do that, okay. They can imagine what would happen if you did that. But on the other hand, if you did get worked up you take a minute now and you could take another breath and instead, imagine yourself in some place that’s very beautiful to you and that you love to be in. It could be a real place you’ve visited. It could be an imaginary place. It could be a place you saw in a movie. You be floating in a cloud, at your favorite beach or meadow, or in a room you love or in a church, or wherever. A place that’s beautiful to you, that you love to be in, where you feel safe and you have nothing to do. Notice what you imagine seeing. Notice like three or four things. Seeing those, the colors, notice the shapes, notice what’s there. Notice if there’s any sound or if it’s just very quiet. Notice the temperature of the air. Notice what time of day or night it is. Notice what – is there an aroma that you might be able to imagine smelling. So we go through all the senses, and pretty soon you’ll feel pretty relaxed and safe. If you close your eyes, and you’re in a safe space, and you give yourself permission to take a few minutes to really immerse yourself in that imagery what’s happening - we know now -we can actually look at your braining functioning in a machine called a functional MRI, which shows what parts of the brain are active. We see that when you imagine looking at all the beautiful things around in your peaceful place, that the part of your brain in the back here, the occipital cortex, that processes vision lights up just like it’s seeing something. If you imagine the sound of the surf, or the calls of the birds, or even the wind in the trees, or even the quiet, the part of your brain here in the temporal cortex that processes sound gets active. If you’re able to imagine the plumeria smell in Hawaii, or the smell of flowers, or the freshness of the air, or the ocean salt or air wherever you are, the part of your brain that processes smell gets active. If you’re able to imagine the temperature, other parts of your brain get active. So what’s happening is as you’re imagining things, the cortex of your brain, the big thinking part of your brain that we prize so much, it’s active and it’s sending down to that hypothalamus that I talked about before. It’s sending down messages that say it looks like a peaceful beautiful place. It sounds like a peaceful beautiful place. It smells like a peaceful beautiful place. It’s nice and warm and comfortable. And the hypothalamus sends out that relaxed message to the rest of the body and the chemicals that carry that message through the body flow through the body. Circulation improves. The body sends out sort of the healing and repair crews as you’re not having to fight for your lives. That’s what happens.

Dr. Maya Novak:
Yes, and I love these two situations or examples that you gave. Imagining the worst thing, and then imagining something really beautiful. If someone does this in this moment, it’s going to be the same situation where they’re at, but the feeling in the body is going to be completely different.

Dr. Martin Rossman:
Completely different, and the body responds to that and where it comes in – one of the places it comes in with injury, and with all healing, is it’s very natural for us if we get an injury to think oh, Christ, I’m never going to be able to run again. I’m never going to be able to do this again. I’m never going to be able to do that again. Sometimes, that’s true but while you’re in the process of healing it’s not where you want to put the majority of your attention. You want to put your attention saying look I’ve got this amazing body. It’s useful to remember that your body got here from nothing. That’s kind of amazing. Like where did this come from? It’s basically stardust that comes together in a – literally stardust – so it comes from nothing. You’ve built your own body. It repairs constantly. It has a tremendous ability to heal. I don’t know how many millions and millions of people are walking around who were told by well-meaning doctors or physical therapists or people you’re never going to do this again, you’re never going to do that again, you’re never going to do this again. You don’t want to lie to people and you don’t want to set up unrealistic expectations, but especially when people are just in a stage of healing and recovery from an injury what you want to say is let’s do everything we can and see how good you can get.

Dr. Maya Novak:
We'll continue in just a moment. I wanted to quickly jump in for two things. First, thank you for tuning in. And second, I’m sure you have at least one friend, colleague, or family member who would very much appreciate this episode. So share it with them and help us spread the word. Now let’s continue…

Dr. Martin Rossman:
So if it turns out that somebody had an injury that they can’t recover from, and that certainly happens. If it’s three years later and you’ve done everything, you’ve done physical therapy and maybe you’ve had surgery, or you’ve had acupuncture and you’ve had whatever medications, whatever procedures you need, and you’re exercising and you’re working with your mind and you’ve done everything you can and you find, well that’s it. Then it’s time to adapt. Then it’s time to kind of shift your mindset. But early on the in the injury you should never put anything past your body’s healing systems. You don’t know. They’re pretty remarkable. You don’t know what they can do. After you get over sort of the shock and trauma and you get your head together because it can take a while. It can be very frightening and you can be seeing people that are giving you messages – whether they say it or whether you see it in their faces – that they’re really worried about you. Sometimes even trained health professionals or doctors are not very skilled with language. They’re not very skilled with expectations and they sometimes even feel it’s their duty to kind of quash your expectations, and that’s a mistake. It’s not – we doctors should never be taking hope away from people. In the worst situations, we can say this is a very bad, serious injury. I don’t know how much better you can get, but let’s talk about you can do so that we can support the healing systems of your body so that you can recover as much as you can possibly recover, and I wouldn’t put a door on it. Let’s see how you do.

Dr. Maya Novak:
I love this because I know that doctors mean well, however, like you said, the language sometimes is not the best. When you were talking about this it reminded me of my situation when I was in the hospital and the surgeon, the doctor, he was talking about everything that could go wrong with my fractured ankle. After a couple of minutes, I was lying in bed and my husband was with me, and we both said - so can you tell us about the best case scenario, and it was a shock to the doctor. He was like, well, I don’t know, but I have to tell you what can go wrong. I think that what you said is so important, leaving the option and hoping that something good can come out of this.

Dr. Martin Rossman:
Yeah, that’s a very important question that your husband asked. That’s brilliant really, and I think everybody should remember that question when they’re talking to doctors about serious illnesses. I don’t want to get on a soapbox about this because it will take too much of our time, but the doctor does need to let you know what the risks of a procedure are, the risks of the medication. Doctors are expected to be experts, so they want to give you information. But if you really think about it, in a situation like that, they don’t know. They could have a hundred people with that same fracture in the ankle and they can tell you what usually happens, or the range of what usually happens. They can tell you that some people could never even heal the fracture at all. There’s no reason to do that, but it’s possible that that happens. But, they can also tell I’ve got a bunch of people that are back running and competing and so on and so forth. So we aren’t taught very much about therapeutic communication in medical school. As a matter of fact, we’re not taught anything at all. And then, at least in America, there’s a huge liability issue for doctors and you’re supposed to give informed consent to people about procedures and treatments. Unfortunately, the informed consent process has devolved into letting somebody know every bad thing that could possibly happen, whether it’s happened or not because they’re written by lawyers. The job of the lawyers is to prevent liability, and the way that they prevent liability is – like when you read what you never should, the inserts on pharmaceutical packages because they tell you every bad thing that ever happened and every bad thing that could happen. Real informed consent would be look, this is a serious injury, let’s say you’re going to have surgery and I’m going to do my best to put things back in place. We’re going to take you to surgery and occasionally there can be a reaction to anesthesia. What I think is real informed consent - rarely there’s a bad effect from anesthesia. It can happen, but it’s rare. Most of the time it doesn’t happen. There’s a risk of a blood clot, but most of the time it doesn’t happen and we’re going to take measures to try to prevent that. So that this is not without risk, but the reason I suggest that you do it is because I think that the benefit is much greater than the risk and we’re going to do everything we can to get as much benefit and as little risk. That’s really informed consent because you wouldn’t even be doing procedures or prescribing medications and so on if you didn’t think that it would help. So to come into somebody who’s frightened as well as injured and traumatized and wondering if they’ll ever walk again, or be able to use their hand again, and then tell them every bad thing that can happen – that’s very bad medicine. You can say this is a serious illness, or this is a serious injury, but we’re going to do everything we can to try to help you get back in action and get healthy again, and if you work along with us, that increases your odds of healing and recovery even more. That’s really informed consent.

Dr. Maya Novak:
I love this. I imagine being in the hospital and if I got this type of consent I would be really relaxed and I would really feel like I can do this, so it might not be my destination. Thank you for sharing this, and I hope that some doctors and surgeons are listening to this as well.

Dr. Martin Rossman:
Me too, because it’s very powerful. It makes their work easier. It makes their work likely to be more successful. It’s not just pretending and it’s not just rah-rah. It’s like this is what’s happening, but you have – most people when they get injured like this, you can say to them have you ever been sick before? And they’ll say yeah, of course, I’ve been sick before. Did you get better? Yeah, I got better. Have you ever had anything that you didn’t get better from? Most people will say well no, really. How did that happen? Well, I don’t know, my body just figured it out somehow. So that same healing system is at work for you now, and you might want to encourage that and that’s where the guided imagery comes in. Sometimes I just say to patients while you’re resting there, as well as being an MD I’m also an acupuncturist so I might treat people to increase the circulation, increase the blood to an area that needs healing. The acupuncture can speed healing in a number of areas. I might be teaching them specific guided imagery, or I might just say to them send some love down there. Just let your ankle know you love it and care for it and are taking care of it and you’re going to provide everything that it needs, and if there’s anything that it wants that even further out. You can say is there anything else that you need and imagine your ankle can talk to you and listen to what you need. That sort of maybe sounds a little weird, but your brain is always communicating with every part of your body. You’re not aware of it, but it not only sends messages, it also gets messages from parts of the body. So imagery is also a way that we can often receive information from the body about what it needs. So I might ask that. If your ankle could talk to you, what do you imagine it would be saying? People will say things like well, it needs exercise, but it needs rest. It needs me not to push it too fast. It needs good nourishment. It needs good molecules to help it heal. It likes physical therapy, whatever. Yeah, you’re imagining it or making it up, but it’s useful information. I find when we do that people usually get encouraging messages back from their body too, and it enhances your mind-body communication.

Dr. Maya Novak:
Yes, and this is true for every part of the body.

Dr. Martin Rossman:
Every part of the body.

Dr. Maya Novak:
Like ankles, knees, back, anything, right.

Dr. Martin Rossman:
Can I say one more thing that I think is very interesting. You’ve kind of got me on a roll here. In America it’s very common, people come in, and they talk about their bad knee, or their bum shoulder, or their bad back, or their goddam ankle, or whatever. You say to them, well you’re really mad at that part of your body because it hurts and it won’t do what you want it to do, and it’s not – so it’s not unexpected that you might get frustrated and mad but why get mad at your body part. I always say look, your knee is not bad, it’s not. It’s hurting and let’s see why is it hurting and what does it need in order to stop hurting. It’s your knee, it’s the only knee – I mean now you can get a knee replacement, but let’s say you’re not getting a knee replacement. Right now this is your knee, be nice to it and see what it needs and let’s see if we can – being mad at someone or something is very rarely useful in healing. Being kind and emphatic and generous and loving is much more healing. So here’s an important story, I think. Back in 1972 acupuncture had just come to America and I had gotten interested in it with a bunch of other doctors. We held a big symposium down at Stanford University. There were about 300 physicians there and the symposium was about acupuncture because it was really mind-blowing. The AMA was coming back from China with videotapes of them doing major operations, taking parts of people’s lungs out, and operating on their brains and operating on their joints, with just acupuncture needles for anesthesia. These people were awake and talking to nurses and sipping tea and eating sections of mandarins and oranges and having their chest cut open and parts of their lung taken out. So it was like a total mindblower, like what’s going on here. So at this symposium, there was a team of surgeons from – I think it was the University of Pennsylvania – and they were one of the first groups of surgeons at that time – that was about the first time where people were able to re-implant limbs that had been severed. So like if people had a finger cut off, it used to be if you had finger cut you’d stop the bleeding and that’s it, you don’t have a finger. But they had pioneered these methods where if you put it on ice and get to a team like that quick enough, they could put it back on and use microsurgical techniques to reattach the arteries and the veins. Sometimes got an arm severed in a car accident, and they’d take it to the hospital and keep it on ice, and the surgeons sometimes can reattach it. That was mind-blowing. So they were one of the leading teams in the United States and they went over on an exchange trip to China. The Chinese were doing re-implantation surgery and they were reporting much higher rates of successful re-implantations where the limbs survived at a much higher rate than the United States. So they went to visit these centers and saw what they were doing, and they came back and they said the Chinese are incredible surgeons, they’re highly skilled. Their hospitals are not as clean as ours, so it’s kind of surprising that they have as good rates as they do, but they’re wonderful surgeons. They’re doing the exact same things that we do, but somehow they’re having much better success at these limbs connecting back to the body. They said we looked at every possible thing we could find and we couldn’t find out the reason why. Then he said, the only thing that we could think of is that apparently in China if they have a body part taken out in China they want to take it home with them in a jar. Like if you have your gallbladder out, they would want to take it home because they believe it should be buried with you when you die and that you want to have all your body parts together, if you can, when you die. That has a spiritual meaning to them. And that their Chinese colleagues told them that in China that they never down talk their body parts. They don’t talk about their bad this and their bad that and so on and so forth. They would not use language like that. They have a sort of a reverence and appreciation for their body parts. So he said I don’t know if that’s the difference, but that’s the only difference we could find. And I think that probably did make a difference. The other thing in China, at that time, was there was a lot of things about Mao Tse Tung and communism in China that are not good, that are not. But they were really good propagandists and people were drilled to think in certain ways, and I’m not in favor of that, but they were drilled into thinking China is good and this is good and the communist party is good and medicine is good. So there’s a lot of mind control, which like I said, I’m in favor of. I’m in favor of you learning to control your own mind. But I wouldn’t doubt that those surgeons also did some positive suggestion and guided imagery to people who came in. Like you’re going to think positively about this. We’re going to attach your arm back on and your arms going to regrow to your body. So I think that was probably a factor there.

Dr. Maya Novak:

Dr. Martin Rossman:
So we want to use that. We don’t want somebody else to tell us that we have to do it, but we’d be fools not to grab that opportunity and start talking about it’s my painful shoulder, my shoulder is in pain. What can I do to help relieve my pain? What can I do to help my shoulder move better? What can I do to take it easy on my shoulder as opposed to being in a war with your shoulder? That’s not going to help you heal.

Dr. Maya Novak:
That’s really important, the belief, what we believe is possible for us. I think that yes, the mind component there, what you described in regards to China, definitely. I think that it played a big, big role. Many people listening to you, to your words, they’re getting hopeful about their recovery. But I’m also positive that there are people who are losing hope about their healing. What would you say to someone who is losing hope about their recovery?

Dr. Martin Rossman:
Hmm, that’s a very profound question. I think, to tell you the truth that it depends a lot on the situation. I think there are limits to positive thinking in that, you know, if you run at a metal door and bang your head into it and get a headache and get dizzy and then you do it again, and it never opens and you just keep banging your head on it and bruising your brain and getting concussion. At some point, you do want to stop banging your head against the wall. When? It’s individual. I think it depends on the nature of the situation. So with my patients, it’s very much how are you feeling? Losing hope, I’m starting to think I’m never going to get better. So I don’t tell them no you’re wrong, you should think positive. I say what makes you think that? What’s going on that makes you think that? So if they say well, I know somebody else and they never got better. I say well, you’re not somebody else. You’re you, and there are people who get a little better, and people who don’t get better and there are people who completely heal and so on. We don’t know yet if it’s really early on in the game, we don’t know yet what’s going to happen, so what would you like to see happen and let’s point at that and go. So sometimes people just need some support and some encouragement. Some, a reality check. If it’s somebody who’s four or five years down the line and they’ve been plateaued for a year and a half where they are, that’s realistic. If they’re pouring lots and lots of energy still into hoping that they’re going to get better than that, I would say leave the door open but maybe you want to – where would it be more useful and constructive and happier for you to put that energy. Okay, so I’m not going to be able mountain bike again like I used to, and that’s sad. So there may be a grieving process involved, but have you found other things that you like to do. Might there be other things that you’d like to do? Sometimes these things are a silver lining. I’ve known athletes whose athletics is everything to them. It’s the thing that gets them up in the morning. It’s their motivation. It’s absolutely everything, and sometimes these are athletes that are world-class athletes and professional athletes and Olympic level athletes. They get injured and they get taken out of the game and that’s a big loss and it deserves a grieving process. There’s a lot of psychological adaptation, but it doesn’t mean your life is over. Sometimes these people find they get involved in something they would never have thought of before and it’s kind of a turning point in their life and it’s something that they wouldn’t have expected. You just have to, at some point, you have to say okay, this path is not going where I wanted to go and I have feelings about that and they need to be processed, but it’s time to look for another path. So it’s not always a bad thing. So is it just a little discouragement? Is it something they saw on television? Is it something the doctor has said to them? Are they just frightened? Or have they been working on this thing for a very long time and it really doesn’t seem to be going. So maybe there’s a different direction. Maybe your life is signaling to you that that’s not all of what life is about, that there’s something else there for you to figure out.

Dr. Maya Novak:
True. I love this. To slowly wrap up this conversation, which I’m extremely enjoying, I do have two more questions. The first one is a bit more fun. If you were stuck on a desert island with an injury and you could bring only one thing with you that would help you heal perfectly, amazingly, what would that thing be?

Dr. Martin Rossman:
There’s a part of me that wants to say morphine! Depending on how painful it was. But you always have your mind and your mind-body connection, so that’s kind of a given. I would hate to be – although a case could be made that – let’s say you were knocked unconscious. Your other injuries might actually heal faster because we humans have a tendency to focus on the negative. We have a negative bias in our brains. We have a tendency to go in a default position to the negative. So in some ways, if you can take your mind out of the game your body knows how to heal. A lot of what we do in teaching people to use their mind in a positive way – part of it is through the relaxation. Just getting your negative thoughts out of the way but then using your positive thoughts with it. So I think that the mind-body connection is by far the most under-utilized tool that we have. So a big part of my life’s work, and it feels like a mission, has been to teach people what we know about the mind-body connection and we know a lot to teach people skills that are often age-old skills that now have modern scientific research behind them to support their use in terms of relaxation, imagery, visualization. Imagery is not only visualization. Visualization is the most common form, but sort of multisensory imagery, how would that healing – how do you imagine it would look? Would there be a sound associated with it? Is there a feeling associated with it? Is there warmth associated with bringing in as many senses as you can. So I’m assuming I’d always have that mind-body connection. So what else if I were to bring one other thing, of course, it would be very dependent on the nature of the injury. But if it were a musculoskeletal injury and if I had a fracture, I’d want a splint. If it was a muscle injury I would want acupuncture needles. So I can’t really answer that question. You always have your mind and your body though. Your body always tries to do – and that’s something I wanted your listeners to think about – your body always tries to do what your mind asks it to do. You can’t always do it, but it always tries. Just getting up and going to work in the morning – and I love my work – but if you didn’t have a mind, my body by itself would not get up and go to work in the morning. It would get up and look for something to eat, and it would wander around and it might for something to mate with, and then it might look for a safe place to take a nap. Then it would look for something to eat, and that’s what it would do. So the whole idea is I’m going to be a doctor and I’m going to help people and I’m going to create educational products and teach people. Whatever it is that you do, that’s because your mind decided you were going to do it. So your body gets up and has breakfast and it goes to work and it does a good job and then it comes home and all that kind of stuff. So use your mind. You let it know what you want it to do. You put that into as multi-sensory an image as you can. You imagine that it’s doing that. You imagine that it completes that task. You imagine the healing you want to have and then you let it go to work. You don’t know how it does that. You don’t have to. It’s kind of just like when you type in a command on your computer. Some of your listeners know then how the computer works and what it does, most do not, and you don’t have to. You just have to know how to let it know what you want it to do and then it does it.

Dr. Maya Novak:

Dr. Martin Rossman:
And your body is the same way.

Dr. Maya Novak:
Yeah, true. The last question that I have, I think that you might already have answered this in this last answer, but the question is, what is your number one advice that you would give someone who is recovering from an injury?

Dr. Martin Rossman:
Well, I would use all – find good help. Find people who have the expertise you need to help you from the outside and, if possible, make sure they not only have the technical expertise, but that they are people who you feel care for you, and people who listen to you and who work with you to help to optimize the healing potential of your body. Then to work from the inside out by learning how to use relaxation, guided imagery, and visualization – which is really quite easy to do. As you said at the beginning, I’ve written three books about it. The one that’s probably most useful for injury recovery is called Guided Imagery for Self-Healing. I made it as a book and a set of audio guided imageries, so I will lead you through the guided imagery and I made it like a home-study course per se. The book tells you the science and why it makes sense and how to use it, and then the audios just lead you, you don’t have to do anything. You just get comfortable, hit the button, and let me teach you how to use it and it’s pretty simple really. Then just make a practice of it, because it really does augment the natural healing ability of your body.

Dr. Maya Novak:
Beautiful. So where can people find more about you, and where can they get these audios and books.

Dr. Martin Rossman:
Thank you for asking. It’s thehealingmind.org. So www.thehealingmind.org. I’ve got about 35 for 40 different relaxation guided imagery programs for pain, for sleep, for speeding up healing, for people with cancer, for asthma, fibromyalgia. Pain, stress, and sleep – those are probably the three that are most targeted to people who are recovering from injury. But you’ll see a wide variety, the books are there too. The whole idea of that is to teach you. They’re very inexpensive, very nontoxic – I mean I wish everything in medicine was like that. It won’t heal everything, but in terms of healing from recovery and the work that you can do from the inside out, I try to make it as simple as possible.

Dr. Maya Novak:
Dr. Rossman, thank you so much for being here, for sharing your knowledge, your expertise, and giving hope to people around the world who are recovering from injuries.

Dr. Martin Rossman:
Well thank you for having me, and thank you for putting on this Summit. It’s going to be very valuable to a lot of people.

Dr. Maya Novak:
Thank you for tuning into today’s episode with Dr. Martin Rossman. If you haven’t done it yet, subscribe to the podcast on whatever platform you’re using to tune in, and share it with your loved ones – yes, I’m thanking you in advance with a cherry on top. To access show notes, links, and transcript of today’s episode go to mayanovak.com/podcast. To learn more about The Mindful Injury Recovery Method visit my website mayanovak.com and find my book Heal Beyond Expectations on Amazon. Until next time – keep evolving, blooming, and healing.

Love and gratitude xx
Dr. Maya

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